Andrew Rehfeld, Ph.D., Delivers Remarks at HUC-JIR Graduation in Cincinnati - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
Skip to main content

Andrew Rehfeld, Ph.D., Delivers Remarks at HUC-JIR Graduation in Cincinnati

Main Content
Friday, May 31, 2019

President Andrew RehfeldBoker Tov, Good Morning, Welcome. 

On behalf of the Board of Governors of Hebrew Union College and our Board Chair Sue Neuman Hochberg, it is my pleasure to welcome you to our 2019/5779 Graduation ceremony, concluding our 144th academic year. 

It is a particular honor to greet you in the beautiful Scheuer Chapel on our Cincinnati Campus – the historic home of HUC, with our Pines School of Graduate Studies and Rabbinical School, as well as the centers preserving our greatest treasures: The American Jewish Archives, the Klau Library, and the Skirball Museum. 

This ceremony is the culmination of a series of three graduations that our Provost, Rabbi Andrea Weiss and I have the privilege to preside over on our three stateside campuses.  Along with our Jerusalem campus, HUC spans 11 time zones, each year training hundreds of doctoral scholars and doctors of ministry of all faiths, rabbis, cantors, Jewish educators and non-profit executives for service to our world. 

I am delighted to welcome our good friend Andrew R. Berger, the immediate past Chair of our Board of Governors, who will receive the Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa, today.  Andy, we express our heartfelt appreciation to you for your years of visionary leadership of our institution and dedicated service to the Cincinnati community.

A very special welcome to our distinguished Graduation Speaker, Dr. Deborah Lipstadt, an esteemed honorary alumna whose achievements we will recognize with our Sherut L’Am Award. We are truly grateful for your participation and look forward to hearing from you today.

Welcome also to our Pines School of Graduate Studies alumni receiving Medallions today – Reverend Dr. Paul Wright and Rabbi Dr. Ruth Langer: we honor you for your 25 years of scholarly achievement, dedicated service to your students and academic institutions, and your devoted involvement with HUC.   

Our thanks go to our College-Institute Leadership with me here on the bema: 

Our Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Provost, Rabbi Dr. Andrea Weiss;

Dean of the Cincinnati Campus, Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Hecht;

Associate Dean, Rabbi Dr. Julie Schwartz;

Director of our Cincinnati Rabbinical School, Rabbi Dr. Jan Katzew;

Director of our Pines School of Graduate Studies, Rabbi Dr. Richard Sarason;

and to our entire faculty [point down to them in audience] for their devotion to our students that has made this day possible.

We are also honored today by the presence of members of our Board of Governors, represented by the Chair, Sue Neuman Hochberg, and our Central Region Board of Overseers, led by Debbie Sorrentino, and by the presence of our partners, leaders of our Reform Movement – represented by Mark Sass, North American Board Member of the Union for Reform Judaism, and Karen Sim, Board Member of the Central District of the Women of Reform Judaism:  today exemplifies the fulfillment of your support for our mission – to bring forth the next generation of Jewish leaders for Reform congregations and the broader institutions of Jewish life and learning, scholars and leaders of faith for the broader world.


I am delighted to celebrate this moment with you, our soon-to-be graduates, as you join the over 4000 HUC alumni now working throughout the globe to build vibrant sustainable communities, deepening our understanding of text and tradition, and bringing justice to our world. 

Graduation marks the successful completion of our students’ formal degree requirements, a moment to recognize each of them individually and celebrate their hard work, study, and sacrifice.   Great accomplishments depend on the support of others, upon whose shoulders each of us stand.  In varying degrees, many of you here today, family and friends of our graduates, provided the emotional, financial, material, and spiritual support that made possible our students’ individual success.  Our faculty gave of themselves in and out of the classroom to inspire our graduates’ work ahead. 

And to the 2019 graduating class yourselves, thank you for the community you created to support each other as well.  Over the decades to come, you will shape our world individually and collectively, strengthening the communities in which you work.  Through that work, our world will be immeasurably improved. Goodness knows, our world urgently needs improvement. 

How tragic it is that during this graduation season we have had to pause to remember those whose lives have been lost or broken through the violent acts of others.  We now live in a world in which darkness takes the name of places that were once sanctified.  Names of places like Gaza from which terror still reigns upon the people of Israel, and of Poway, Pittsburgh, and Christchurch, New Zealand, where white nationalists have targeted Jews and people of faith simply for being different.  In some ways our world seems horribly askew, we seem unable to achieve the peace and justice that our tradition commands us to pursue. 

And for our institution, this season also brings with it the first yahrzeit of my predecessor, President Aaron Panken, who perished during this month last year.  HUC recognized this moment this past Wednesday. with a day of learning that embodied Aaron’s spirit—his love of Torah and Jewish life.  Along with the establishment of the four Panken Professorships that were brought to fruition last year through the passionate work of Lisa Messinger, Aaron’s wife, Aaron’s life and legacy, built in partnership with Lisa, will live on -- on each campus. 

At his last public address to the 2018 Graduating Class, President Panken shared these words, warning of “countries long civilized and democratic, reverting to policies of nationalism and tactics of scapegoating reminiscent of our darkest times. [… ] cynical and often violent supremacist protests, and the abhorrent targeting of innocent immigrants as vicious criminals.”  

Would that his words no longer resonated so deeply.

But Aaron also knew that our people had the genius to respond.  Going on, he wrote, “the Jewish people, and our religious friends of other faiths, have seen this before, and we have lived through it, and thrived, and built again and again and again…The world we live in today may have its darkness, but let us remember that there is so much light as well. We cannot equate the current state of the world with the extremes of the enormous tragedies that have befallen us.”

In large part, our ability to move from darkness to light reflects the season of the Omer.  During this season we ritually count the days from Passover to Shavuot, marking multiple transitions:

The agricultural transition from planting to first harvest;

The spiritual path from the redemption of Passover to the revelation at Sinai. 

And the political path of our transformation as a people defined by negative freedom, delivered from the oppression by others to a people defined by positive freedom, to the ability to decide what to do with that freedom, to enter into a covenant that formed our People as such for the first time. 

I believe that the resilience of the Jewish People and of other faiths since that time is a great source of that light of which Aaron spoke.  And it depends upon a foundation of shared norms and values. 

Those shared norms and values can only be created, sustained, and strengthened through the very work that our alumni have done and that you, our graduates, will be doing as you begin your professional lives.  For our graduates are not merely teaching at seminaries and faith-based colleges or leading congregations, schools, and other nonprofit organizations, they will be engaged in building a Jewish and larger Public Sphere

The Jewish and larger Public Sphere is the communal ecosystem that forms the canvas upon which our lives are lived, our values are articulated, and our future in no small part depends.  The Jewish and larger Public Sphere creates the conditions for us to solve collective problems and address our communal needs.  In partnership with our faith partners, broader community and government, the Jewish and larger Public Sphere ensures our welfare and security in these troubling times, times in which we are once again targeted and attacked.   

The Jewish and larger Public Sphere provides a place for each of us as members to find our own voice and who, in the best tradition of Reform Judaism and other faiths, have chosen of our own free will and moral autonomy to join and actively engage in the life of our community.  There we study our texts, engage in our rituals that sanctify time and space, celebrate our joyous moments and mourn together in the aftermath of tragedy, and mobilize our communities to make the world a more sustainable one, bending it towards Justice. 

The Jewish and larger Public Sphere creates a shared sense of purpose to help us respond to our internal and external challenges.  Internal challenges that slowly threaten our existence: challenges of insufficient education, diminished engagement in religious life, and tenuous, weakened or simply “thin” identity.   Education, Engagement, and Identity. 

And in close partnerships with other communities, the Jewish and larger Public Sphere provides a foundation rooted in the wisdom and meaning of our faith traditions to jointly confront our shared external challenges we all now face: a growth of authoritarian governments, a weakening of democratic norms, the degradation of our environment, the resurgence of anti-Semitism, hatred, and racism at levels not seen in perhaps two or three generations.

At the center of any public sphere that you, our graduates will now work in and lead, are the religious institutions that form its backbone. But the Jewish and larger Public Sphere is defined by no single organization. It is the ecosystem of institutions creating a platform for us to realize our collective values. 

And what are those values?  Let me propose three triads (I am an academic after all…!)

  1. Drawn from our Hebrew Bible’s sources, we recognize that communal authority is not concentrated in one place, but derived from three separate bases or “crowns,” keterim of authority from which we draw, one each tracing to the authority given to Moses, Aaron and David. 
    1. The Mosaic Authority—from which our clergy and teachers create, interpret, and struggle with our textual tradition, drawing from it right behavior and a vision of justice towards each other and the communities on which we stand.
    2. The Aaronic Authority, from which our clergy and thought leaders develop and continue meaningful ritual and prayer that, by elevating us aesthetically, draws our attention upward, mediating the relationship between our congregations and people with the Divine, the Holy and the Good. 
    3. And the Davidic Authority, from which the leaders of our institutions are invested with the civil authority to make the hard decisions necessary to sustain the very institutions upon which the Public Sphere depends.
  2. The second value that must sustain our Jewish and Public Sphere is a commitment to building communities that respect Pluralism, a tradition upon which our past and future depend.  For the Jewish faith, pluralism means recognizing the three authentic approaches to Jewish life—halachic Judaism, Liberal or Reform Judaism, and Secular Judaism.  Each one is in partial tension with the other, yet all are necessary for the survival and depth of our communities as they are now constituted. 
    1. Halachic Judaism: in which the story of God giving Torah to Moses at Sinai is taken to have been a real event which created binding law halacha.
    2. Reform or Liberal Judaism: in which our individual’s moral autonomy, free will and reason mediate our encounter with the Divine or the God, along with a commitment to using our tradition towards the pursuit of justice for all.
    3. And Secular Judaism, in which our literature, art, culture and ethical values create a strong commitment to peoplehood and the preservation of it.   (Israel’s founding based on it.)
  3. And finally, the Jewish and larger Public Sphere is built to realize the threefold why of life in any of its forms—the pursuit of the Good, the Right, and the Just.  For life should always cause us to lift our eyes up towards the Eternal, the Holy, and the Good; to turn sideways to act ethically towards one another, and gaze downward to bring justice to the communities on which we stand.  The Good, the Right, and the Just. 

You, our alumni and graduates, are and will be the architects of our Jewish and larger Public Sphere.  For more than other institution in North America, HUC is producing leadership upon whose work our Jewish and larger Public Sphere depends. 

As graduates of the Pines School, you will be teaching, writing, and building interfaith understanding. As you live lives of service in in other faith traditions, you will be taking what you learned at HUC to enrich your communities, bringing understanding to those who are not Jewish, after having enriched ours while you were here – a vital part of our campus community.

As future rabbis, you will be working in and leading our congregations, our schools, our summer camps, our social service agencies, our Jewish Community Centers, our Jewish Federations, and our Hillels.  Each of you will be ensuring that the textual tradition, stories, and teaching will motivate our best possible lives.  You will be educating our children and grandchildren, writing for newspapers, forming interfaith alliances, managing the most important non-profit organizations in the world, and advocating for policies and laws—whether in America, Canada, throughout Europe and New Zealand or in Israel—that bring healing to our world when it needs it the most. 

And so, I want to thank all of you for making a commitment to your studies and this important work.  And thank you, who have supported them, for sustaining our graduates to help get them to this moment in time.  For you have prepared them to rise above the darkness of our times and create the conditions for a thriving Jewish Pubic Sphere that benefits our entire world. 

President Panken last year observed that “We are a people of action and courage, of innovation and fearlessness. Even in the darkest of times, we have faced challenges and overcome them.”  Indeed. 

I congratulate each of our alumni and our graduates in this year’s class.  Go forth from here, deploying the wisdom you have developed from your HUC-JIR education, to build strong communities, establish vital Jewish and larger Public Spheres, and lead us to create lives of dignity, meaning, and purpose for ourselves, and pursuing Justice for all as part of a life, well lived.

Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates leaders to serve North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, museums, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding.